On Saturday, October 27th, Diane Auer Jones, Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the Department of Education, gave a public address at the conference International Education at the Crossroads, organized in Bloomington by Indiana University. An audience of around 100, many of us migrants and persons of color, and most of us higher education professors and administrators who focus on especially language training, was treated to about 25 minutes of anecdotes about Jones’ passion for foreign languages. As she emphasized, she has a family that travels and works abroad, and she has raised children interested in foreign languages.

The Assistant Secretary also conveyed Betsy DeVos’s greetings and best wishes, before launching into the second part of her speech, which she introduced with the words: “So what do we think needs to improve over time?” Apparently, the most urgent issue on Secretary DeVos’s mind is the need for us — faculty in higher education, including those of us who are green card holders, naturalized citizens, or teaching on a work visa — to spy on our students. “We have to be vigilant,” she said:

There are deep concerns about the presence of some international students and their less than scholarly pursuits that have to do with intellectual property and personally identifiable information…We cannot ignore that this threat exists and what I call upon you to do is to take it upon yourselves to find solutions to mitigate the risk.

After describing this supposed threat, she went on to state: “I fear that if colleges don’t acknowledge the threat exists and don’t work themselves to mitigate it, we could find that some of these programs are in jeopardy. And I get congressional letters on a regular basis about this topic.”

Congressional letters from whom?  And are they based on any factual evidence that such threats are real?

Never before have I heard a high official of the U.S. government call upon educators to spy on our students and threaten to cut our funding if we don’t do so. Nobody in the room, among those people or the leadership of my institution, had any public reaction to this statement.

Moving forward, I am not sure what will happen. But it is obvious to me that we are now moving from speculation to fact and demonstrable evidence that this Republican administration is intent on weaponizing education for militaristic purposes and on further polarizing our country between “us” (those good citizens committed to finding spies among us) and “them” (those who refuse to participate in this nefarious activity).

There has never been a more urgent time to heed the words often attributed to Thomas Jefferson:  “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.